A Pope And His People

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

We are celebrating the Christmas Season still, Christmas Day has come and gone, but not the spirit, not at all the spirit. Most Filipinos are Christian, and even the Muslim minority, and the Communist Left, have traditionally accepted this season as very special to Christians.

Pope Francis, too, gives Christmas and the Catholic faith a renewed spark. His personal actuation that has consistently translated to Papal action and exhortation may be shocking to some Talibans in the Church hierarchy but is causing many more Catholics more than just a sigh of relief. I personally believe that it is the authentic love for humanity, and especially for the poor, that serves as an armor for Pope Francis, that keeps him largely irreproachable by rightists and fundamentalists in the Church.

And as Pope, Francis does not pretend that he can understand and speak for the limitless of God’s love for the mankind He created. By putting no boundaries, or partisanship, in God’s love, Pope Francis veers away from judging, and being judgmental. Accepting his own sinful state (in other words, his humanity), Pope Francis places on a pedestal the importance of forgiveness, God’s forgiveness of man, and man’s forgiveness towards one another.

More than just shunning away from pomp and gaudy protocol, Pope Francis takes the side of the poor and has become their primary spokesperson and defender. By distancing himself, and giving the example for the Church as an institution to follow, his moral ascendancy now allows Pope Francis to address the world of nations and leaders and appeal for the poor. The appeal, though, is not only for sympathy, it is for radical change against what contributes to poverty – greed and institutional values that nourish it.

The Pope has looked to the very institution and hierarchy that he leads yet firmly and clearly points out the attitudes and practices that have corroded its purity and noble purpose. Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have been victims of the hypocrisy so similar to the infamous Pharisees and Scribes of yore feel affirmed that their understanding of Christ and His teachings were, after all, sound. It had been a source of great puzzlement, and deep disappointment, that the very simplicity of the life of Jesus, His unwavering love for the poor, the sick, the oppressed, seemed to have been discarded for ornate churches and the authoritarianism these represent.

The evangelistic perspective so lovingly taught by Jesus Himself, exhorting all to love one another and using that love to draw each other towards a divine pathway had transformed itself to a grotesque application of conquest through fear and dictatorship. For so long, the challenge for conversion became the numbers game of recruitment. It is, therefore, quite understandable that the more developed societies who have become less fearful of a God painted as vindictive. But in doing so, these countries who had been the earliest Christians and Catholics, have also been denying their presence to many churches and masses in Western Europe.

In the Philippines, the same pattern of waning influence by the Catholic Church has been experienced. The percentage of Filipino Catholics has been reducing, and their solidarity alarmingly weakening, especially in a long-drawn and terribly divisive conflict over a reproductive health bill. The acerbic and belligerence image of high-profile bishops contrasted with the primary commandments of love and the Christian message of forgiveness, both of which define the heart of Pope Francis’ exhortations.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines, though, is most vulnerable when it comes to the massive poverty long afflicting tens of millions of Filipinos. Landlessness, or the theft of the land belonging to natives of the country by the same Spanish crown that awarded the Catholic Church with vast tracts of land, has been pinpointed as the root cause of this massive poverty. The wealth of a land considered among the richest in biodiversity and the creativity and talents of a people who have proven themselves in various fields around the world point out that poverty is not a natural state of the population. But most Filipinos still remain landless while the Church cannot even begin to make public how much land it still owns after already selling so much in the last several decades.

The papacy, then, of Pope Francis forces the Church to confront itself because he is going very visibly against poverty to a point that he questions the wealth and practices associated with Church rule. The Pope is confronting the very issue that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Philippines has been turning a blind eye to – a poverty that it has directly and historically contributed to. The courage of a Pope to focus on reforming the Church has not weakened the institution but actually refreshes the faith of members. It may upset the more vociferous among bishops in the Philippines but promises a new dawn for Filipino Catholics seeking solace and peace from their spiritual pastors.

The Church hierarchy in the Philippines has long made pronouncements about being pro-poor but has never matched that intention with official behavior. It had indulged in more politics and rhetoric that have pitted Catholics against Catholics rather than inspire its flock to do battle against poverty. Anti-corruption and Pro-choice issues have been the preferred causes, almost a diversionary strategy to avoid issues of poverty and hunger. That posture will have to change with the leadership by example of Pope Francis, and poor Filipinos have found a powerful champion.

Politics and religion are mechanisms intended to promote well being on earth and beyond earthly life. Yet, these two fields of human endeavor have caused so much conflict everywhere, not just the Philippines. The example of a Catholic leader embracing simplicity and pleading for the poor of the world may just yet be the spark that can tilt global concern and action to effective pro-poor intervention. But in the Philippines, should Pope Francis inspire Catholics to follow his example, a new dawn will emerge, history will change its course, and the future will be full of hope.

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